Mountaintop Removal: Environmental and Human Destruction for Profit

Activists call it “strip mining on steroids.” So did John Mitchell in his March 2006 National Geographic article titled, “Mining the Summits: When Mountains Move,” saying:

Julia ‘Judy’ Bonds, “(a) coal miner’s daughter… no longer (could) tolerate the blasting that rattled her windows, the coal soot that she suspected was clotting her grandson’s lungs, and the blackwater spills that bellied-up fish in a nearby stream.”

As a result, she moved downstream and joined Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), an activist group against mountaintop removal.

CRMW is an initiative “to stop the destruction of our communities and environment by mountaintop removal, to improve the quality of life in our area, and to help rebuild sustainable communities.”

In January 2011, Bonds died of cancer at age 58, CRMW co-director Vernon Haltom saying:

“Judy endured much personal suffering for her leadership. While people of lesser courage would candy-coat their words or simply shut up and sit down, Judy called it as she saw it. (As a result, she) endured physical assault, verbal abuse, and death threats because she stood up for justice for her community. I never met a more courageous person, one who faced her own death,” yet wouldn’t back down. “Fight harder,” she always said, in the vanguard always doing it.

On January 3, 2011, coal toxins silenced the “passion, conviction, tenacity, courage, and love for her fellow human beings” that coal barons tried and failed to do for years. “Judy will be missed by all in this movement as an icon, a leader, an inspiration, and a friend.”

National Geographic quoted her saying: “What the coal companies are doing to us and our mountains is the best kept dirty little secret in America.”

Because of her efforts and fellow activists, the secret’s out. “Coal companies have obliterated the summits of scores of mountains scattered throughout Appalachia….”

According to, coal companies destroyed or severely impacted about 500 mountains and 1.2 million acres, reclaiming only a small fraction of the land for so-called beneficial economic uses.

In fact, a 2009 Appalachian Voices report (based on 2008 aerial and mining permit data) found “one in every ten (Central Appalachia studied) acres” ravaged by surface mining. Moreover, in some locations, it’s much more. In Wise County, VA, it’s nearly 40%. States affected include Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee.

In June 2006, Vanity Fair writer Michael Shnayerson’s article called it “The Rape of Appalachia,” saying:

Its mountains “are being blasted at a rate of several ridgetops each week. Parents fear for the health of their children. And those trying to fight the devastation have found that coal baron Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, is tougher than bedrock.” So are his counterparts at Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and CONSOL Energy.

Industry arrogance is hidden underground, except when avoidable disasters kill miners because its profiteers flout laws and regulations for bottom line priorities.

Above ground, miners rarely die, just the environment and human health incrementally over time. The visible evidence includes: “mile after mile of forest-covered range, great swaths of Appalachia, in some places as far as the eye can see, are being blasted and obliterated in one of the greatest acts of physical destruction this country has ever wreaked upon” nature and humanity.

They’re sacrificed for King Coal profiteers, the 1917 title Upton Sinclair used for his novel about Western America’s poor industry working conditions, based on the 1913-15 Colorado coal strikes, including at Ludlow.

In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn poignantly described its 1913-14 strike and subsequent massacre, killing 75 or more strikers, strikebreakers, and bystanders for defying what he called “feudal kingdoms run by (coal barons that) made the laws,” imposed curfews, and ran their operations more like despots than businessmen. To this day, little has changed.

As a result, something is very wrong, including in Whitesville, WV. “It looks desolate, its storefronts abandoned, its streets and sidewalks still. Hardly a car is parked here, not a soul to be seen.”

Only two florists remain. Though poor, West Virginians “buy a lot of funeral flowers. Whitesville resembles a wartime town pillaged by an advancing army.” So do many others throughout Appalachia, raped by coal profiteers. For maximum profits, they denuded former panoramic landscapes, blasted away majestic mountaintops, and left desolation behind.

More affluent communities might have stopped them, but not Appalachia, “a land unto itself, cut off by” mountains East and West, its people too poor, isolated and cowed by generations of King Coal dominance to stop the destruction of their communities, homes and lives.

Moreover, few Americans elsewhere know it or even care. They’re oblivious to “three million (daily) pounds of explosives” destroying a mountain culture, producing the most toxic fossil fuel used to supply more than half of the nation’s electricity, as well as power for manufacturers of paper, chemicals, metal products, plastics, ceramics, fertilizers, tar, and high carbon coke used for steel industry metal processing.

In addition, other coal-derived compounds and residues are used in many other manufacturing processes for synthetic rubber, fiber, insecticides, paints, medicines and solvents.

A 2010 Environmental Integrity Project/Sierra Club/EarthJustice study, however, found that ash produced by coal-fired power plants contaminated ground water and air with dangerous toxins, including arsenic, benzene, mercury and lead. They’re linked to cancer, congestive heart failure, nervous system damage, respiratory diseases, asthma, other health related problems, and lower life expectancies.

Moreover, the Union of Concerned Scientists calls coal burning “a leading cause of smog, acid rain, global warming, and air toxins,” saying each year a typical coal plant generates:

— “3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2),” the equivalent of “cutting down 161 million trees;

— 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2),” causing acid rain damaging forests, lakes, and physical structures, as well as harmful airborne particles able to penetrate deeply into lungs;

— “500 tons of small airborne particles, (responsible for) chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature death, as well as haze obstructing visibility;”

— 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx),” the equivalent of what’s emitted by half a million late-model cars; it produces lung inflaming ozone, making people susceptible to respiratory diseases; and

— smaller amounts of other toxins, including carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, benzene, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.

No matter. King Coal is empowered to destroy environments and human health for a buck, lots of them, in fact, for well-connected coal barons buying federal, state and local politicians like toothpaste.

As a result, nearly 24,000 people die annually, according to a 2004 Clean Air Task Force study. In 2009, a National Research Council “external costs of coal” report titled, “Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use” estimated a 2005 hidden $62 billion health damage and air pollution cost from electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. The figure excludes the enormous harm to ecosystems.

A 2009 Jonathan Levy/Joel Schwartz/Lisa Baxter Harvard University study titled, “Uncertainty and Variability in Health-Related Damages from Coal-Fired Power Plants in the United States” estimated a range from $30,000-$500,000 (depending on facility age and types of coal used) for every ton of fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5), with a median rate of $72,000 per ton.

Moreover, damage from each ton of sulfur dioxide ranged from $6,000 to $50,000, with a median rate of $19,000. For nitrogen oxide, it was $500 to $15,000, the median cost being $4,800.

Numerous other studies are just as damning, showing the health and environmental harm from coal production to burning, including a February 2011 Harvard Medical School one titled, “Mining Coal, Mounting Costs: the Life Cycle Consequences of Coal.” It estimated the full public cost of extraction, transportation, processing and combustion at from $175-$500 billion annually.

Nonetheless, King Coal’s power remains strong, including to offload mine reclamation costs to taxpayers,  another way they’re made to pay. Even trying to beat industry giants in court is futile because occasional district court level wins get overturned on appeal by bought and paid for judges, as much in the tank as politicians.

That’s how stories end in Coal River Valley, said Vanity Fair’s Shnayerson, “with a whimper, followed by a bang from blasting,” destroying mountains, communities, ecosystems and people in combination. Judy Bonds called it “stealing our soul.”

Mountaintop Removal: How It’s Done

Mountain Justice calls it “mountain range removal/valley fill mining,” a process that “annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes.” Its steps include:

(1) Clear-cutting forests, including scraping away topsoil, lumber, herbs, and other life forms, denuding the landscape. In the process, wildlife habitat and vegetation are destroyed, leaving areas vulnerable to floods and landslides.

(2) Up to 800 feet of mountaintops are blasted, causing immediate damage to home foundations, structures and wells. Moreover, unleashed “fly rock” boulders endanger lives and property.

(3) Huge shovels rip into soil, loading coal onto trucks to haul away or push into adjacent valleys.

(4) Giant dragline machines dig into rock, exposing coal deposits.

(5) Other machines scoop it out, dumping millions of “overburden” tons (former mountaintops) into valleys below, creating valley fills. As a result, coal giants “forever buried over 1,200 miles of biologically crucial Appalachian headwater streams.”

(6) Mandated land reclamation areas are usually left stripped and bare. Mountains are destroyed and lost. Once maximum coal is extracted, mining communities and jobs disappear. Residents are driven out by dust, blasting, residues, toxins, flooding, landslides, and “dangers from overloaded trucks careening down small, windy mountain roads.”

Enormous amounts of waste are generated. In solid form, it’s valley fills. Liquid is stored in “massive, dangerous coal slurry impoundments, often built in” watershed headwaters. A carcinogenic chemical “witch’s  brew” is used to wash coal for market, leaving behind poisonous residues. Frequent blackwater spills choke life from streams.

For example, the Southeast’s worst ever environmental disaster sent 306 million gallons of sludge up to 15 feet thick into residents’ yards. It also fouled 75 miles of waterways.

Another affected Southern West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek when heavy rain caused a slurry pond to fill up, breaching its containment dam. As a result, “a (132 million gallon) wall of black water” blighted the valley below, killing 125 residents, injuring 1,100, and leaving 4,000 homeless.

In addition, over 1,000 cars and trucks were destroyed, causing $50 million in damage overall. Though warned about the dangerous dam, Pittston Coal Company took no precautions, dismissively calling the disaster an “act of God.”

A Final Comment

EarthJustice and other environmental groups are urging Congress to pass HR 1375: Clean Water Protection Act. Introduced on April 5, 2011, then referred to Committee, it’s legislation to “amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of waste.”

EarthJustice calls it a way to put “tighter restrictions on dumping pollution into Appalachian streams by overturning the dangerous fill rule.” If enacted, it will  restore eroded Clean Water Act protections, even though passage won’t assure coal giants’ compliance. They may, in fact, accept hand slap citations and fines to keep doing business as usual like always in the past.

Another March 2009 bill never made it out of committee – S. 696: Appalachia Restoration Act, “A bill to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to include a definition of fill material.” If passed, it would have prohibited dumping mountaintop removal “excess spoil” into streams and headwaters. But it would have allowed other mining and industrial waste dumping into waters, practices once prohibited by the Clean Water Act.

EarthJustice and other committed groups also campaign to stop mountaintop removal mining. Former congressman Ken Hechler is involved. A feisty 96, his image is featured on Washington, DC area billboard ads saying:

“My name is Ken. I’m 96 and a fighter. And I’m fighting to save our mountains.” He’s part of EarthJustice’s Mountain Heroes campaign, organizer Liz Judge saying:

We also plan to go to other cities. Our purpose is to tell the stories of people who live in the coalfields, people who deal with the impact of mountaintop removal mining on a daily basis.

Representing West Virginia’s 4th congressional district from 1959 – 1977, Hechler then served as its Secretary of State from 1985-2001, retiring at age 86. A Columbia University Ph D in history and government, he spent decades fighting for miners’ health and safety laws.

Judge called his efforts “heroic,” even coming out of retirement in 2010 at age 95 to run against then Gov. Joe Manchin in the Democrat special primary, solely on ending mountaintop removal.

Like others, he believes there’s “light at the end of the tunnel. But the tougher it gets, the more exciting it gets when you can see victory,” or a chance of getting what so far proved elusive. “I’m still hoping,” says Hechler, “that before I leave this world I get to see that victory, which I’m sure is going to come.”

On June 6, he participated in a five-day march  commemorating the 90th anniversary of the historic 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain when 10,000 or more coal miners courageously participated in the largest US rebellion since the Civil War. Struggling to unionize for basic rights, including decent wages and working conditions, they confronted a coal operator-backed army of police, strikebreakers, and US Army troops.

Dozens were killed or wounded, hundreds arrested. The battle challenged appalling conditions miners faced, culminating later with New Deal labor victories. Eroded later, they’re now lost, but not in the memories of activists struggling to regain them.

At the time, the Battle of Blair Mountain was a watershed event. In April 2008, the National Register of Historic Places nominated the site for its protected places list, a decision the state of West Virginia contested, leaving its status under review.

On or off, Blair Mountain symbolizes a struggle anti-mountaintop removal activists don’t intend to lose.

For them and beleaguered Appalachian residents, winning can’t come a moment too soon.

Stephen Lendman wrote How Wall Street Fleeces America: Privatized Banking, Government Collusion and Class War. Contact him at: Also visit his blog site and listen to The Global Research News Hour on Mondays from 11AM-1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests. All programs are archived for easy listening. Read other articles by Stephen.